5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

Iron Man 3 footage preview e1364902676669 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

Robert Downey Jr. has cemented himself as the consensus pick for probably the coolest guy in Hollywood, in large part thanks to a couple of iconic roles he has embodied in the last five years: Tony Stark aka Iron Man, and Sherlock Holmes. These characters call for an overabundance of charisma, and such a quality comes in massive quantity with Downey. This has bled into his personal character, the public character of Robert Downey Jr., whose stardom is now as massive as Tony Stark’s and whose egocentric persona is almost indistinguishable from the characters he plays. Whether he’s dramatically taking off his sunglasses, making people aware of just how much more good looking he has become with age, or any of his other gif-worthy moments, he finds a way to be entertaining and amusing in just about every situation.

The downside of his intensified interest in these two iconic roles, to which he’s devoted his work almost exclusively since 2008, is that he hasn’t often been able to demonstrate just how much range he actually has as an actor. He got his start in the 1980s, with memorable roles in movies like Weird Science and Less than Zero, showing audiences how easily he could transition from one definitive character to the next. As he’s matured, his talents have progressed considerably, although he still has a tendency to continue to inhabit his characters long after leaving the work behind. He’s one performer who doesn’t seem to really let his characters go.

Here are 5 performances that really exhibit Robert Downey Jr.’s range of abilities in making his on-screen characters every bit as believable and entertaining as the one the Iron Man 3 star plays in real life.

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1) Chaplin

Chaplin 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

The first time Robert Downey Jr. really showed what he could do came in 1992, when he portrayed the legendary Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. Playing these real life characters is often thought of as a home run for actors, a part that is sure to attract enough attention to pretty much guarantee awards consideration. And so it’s tempting to think that the Academy Award nomination Downey received for becoming Chaplin was predictable and not worth a huge amount of respect.

But the intensified attention can also magnify the pressure of a role like this, and we’ve seen plenty of actors fail to connect with audiences or to communicate a historical figure effectively enough to earn praise. It’s indeed a high risk, high reward situation. In Downey’s case, he was able to pull off a pretty remarkable transformation, embodying both the elder version of Chaplin the man as well as the iconic character of the Tramp for which Chaplin is known best. It has to be considered one of the greatest biopic performances in movies, and it’s hard to imagine Robert Downey Jr., having established a persona so iconic by now, being able to disappear into another icon like Charlie Chaplin today. But it would be fun to see him try something like this again.

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2) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

They’re reteaming for Iron Man 3, but Robert Downey Jr. and director Shane Black first collaborated on the 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Suffice it to say—they have some chemistry. This film marked one of Downey’s first great roles following his highly publicized off-screen legal and drug-related issues, and it reintroduced audiences (though not many; it was a pretty small film with a limited release) to what he could do as an actor.

His best work may come early on in the film, when his character, on the run from police, stumbles into an audition room. Not wanting to be exposed to the authorities, he plays the part in front of him, and finds it coincidentally relevant and cathartic for precisely what’s happening in his life, and thus of course, nails the audition and impresses the producers for being so “method.” There are some really interesting layers in this scene that Downey brings out beautifully. And the rest of the film is a showcase of both his charisma and utter relatability when his criminal behavior gets him in over his head. Just watching him mess around with Val Kilmer is a delight, but the clever and self-referential dialogue helps too.

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3) A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

The Robert Downey Jr. renaissance of the mid-00s continued as he worked under a range of young and talented directors to older, more established ones. In A Scanner Darkly, it was the underrated genius of Richard Linklater that tapped into Downey’s skills and perhaps some of his personal history. He plays a guy named James who is one of the drug addicts living with the Keanu Reeves protagonist character.

This is one of Linklater’s rotoscoped animation movies, so the entire thing was shot on camera and then converted to a graphic format, like he did previously in Waking Life. This can seem to gloss over a performance’s imperfections perhaps, but it can also make what we subconsciously may expect to be uninteresting animation come to life when you have someone with the energy of Robert Downey Jr. on the screen. His performance here is a perfect fit for the labyrinthine Philip K. Dick adaptation, with as much madness as believability and as much humor as despair.

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4) Zodiac

Zodiac 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

In terms of critical reception, Zodiac was probably the biggest success in which Robert Downey Jr. played a part before Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes catapulted him into blockbuster stardom. It announced the serious arrival of director David Fincher in the eyes of avid movie watchers, even though he’d be around with the likes of Fight Club and Se7en which for some reason weren’t taken as seriously. It’s a movie that may not be as enthralling the first time you watch it—at least it wasn’t for me for some reason, as well as a number of critics—but somehow on that second watch, everything comes to life, not least of which is Downey’s performance as reporter Paul Avery.

It’s a subtle thing, but sometimes the interest a character can show in the mysteries of an investigation like the one at the center of Zodiac is enough to draw the audience in, and this is something Downey does rather strikingly in this movie. He is the seasoned guy who, like us, doesn’t know what to make of the Jake Gyllenhaal character at first, until he realizes he may be on to something and they begin to work together. As the stand-in for anyone who has tried and failed to solve a mystery for decades, Downey captures the frustration and near madness that can result from such an expenditure of one’s time and energy.

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5) Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder 5 Performances That Demonstrate Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Range

Finally, just months after making his momentous debut as Tony Stark in Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. appeared alongside Ben Stiller and Jack Black in the 2008 comedy blockbuster Tropic Thunder. It’s arguable that this is the most ambitious role of Downey’s career, perhaps one of the most of any star in recent memory. This isn’t a matter of it being some kind of high-minded virtuous expression of a character necessarily, but rather that just comedically it was risky in terms of taste, requiring Downey to tow several lines of irony and satire, and also performatively, requiring him to embody two or three very different personas, sometimes mere moments apart.

It’s best summed up by the much-quoted line, that he was the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude. So he’s Kirk Lazarus, self-serious Australian method actor, who has donned a technologically advanced version of blackface to become Vietnam War sergeant Lincoln Osiris. He captures the extent to which a clueless white actor may flail in the waters of stereotyping and grasping for any pop culture knowledge of black culture available to him, and the hilarious idea of this crazy actor having no self-awareness about how offensive his performance is. Of course, Downey and Stiller were aware of the offensiveness, which makes it funny for us.

Do you have any favorite Robert Downey Jr. performances to highlight from the course of his illustrious career? Share them in the comments section below.

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  • MrCustomer

    How did you bypass Less Than Zero for Tropic Thunder? He was the scene stealing star of that movie, and played a truly scary character – not for what he was doing, but for what was happening to him while spiraling down the dark hole of addiction. Maybe the biggest anti-drug message of the 80′s and 90′s…

  • MrCustomer

    How did you bypass Less Than Zero for Tropic Thunder? He was the scene stealing star of that movie, and played a truly scary character – not for what he was doing, but for what was happening to him while spiraling down the dark hole of addiction. Maybe the biggest anti-drug message of the 80′s and 90′s…

  • MrCustomer

    How did you bypass Less Than Zero for Tropic Thunder? He was the scene stealing star of that movie, and played a truly scary character – not for what he was doing, but for what was happening to him while spiraling down the dark hole of addiction. Maybe the biggest anti-drug message of the 80′s and 90′s…

    • Zena Lewis

      Excellent response

    • Carter Mckinney

      first movie I thought of was Less than Zero

    • Carter Mckinney

      first movie I thought of was Less than Zero

    • Jackie Jormpjomp

      I was thinking the same thing! How the heck is less than zero not on this list?

  • Alex Lowe

    Game 6 is another really solid performance from him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RattleSnake316 Sami Ur Rehman

    U.S. Marshals

  • http://www.facebook.com/RattleSnake316 Sami Ur Rehman

    U.S. Marshals

  • http://www.facebook.com/RattleSnake316 Sami Ur Rehman

    U.S. Marshals

  • chclttrffls

    Soapdish is also a comedic gem from his past.

  • Glides

    If not for Heath Ledger, The Downey should’ve won an Oscar for Tropic Thunder.

  • Katherine K

    I have to say I would have thought Heart and Souls would have made the list especially since he has to act as 5 different characters in just one movie

    • Darnitol

      Yes, it’s still my favorite Downey film.

    • Can_You_Dig_It

      Not to mention that this movie was “adapted” into a Korean movie, which will soon be released as a Chris Columbus and Adam Sandler remake.

  • http://awkwardmoviereviews.wordpress.com/ Anthony Donovan Stokes

    Robert Downey Jr. is one of the most talented actors working right now eventually he’ll start directing and get Oscars that way too

  • Zena Lewis

    Loved him in Less than ZERO

    • debsid

      less than zero is what ended his initial carrear.
      He actually did the drugs to play the role, and got hooked.
      His career since the hiatus has exploded, and respect is deserved for comeback as an actor.

      • Tabinda Touseef

        I disagree. Because
        A) He is not a method learning actor. He said so himself.

        B) His father introduced him to drugs when he was 8 years old. He had been on drugs since then and it has nothing to do with this movie.
        C) This movie was released in 1987 while Downey’s drug troubles started around 1996. So even if we mistakenly assume that he did drugs particularly for this movie didn’t it took a lot of time for the drug to work.

  • Chooch

    Yeah, I’m not sure how many people have posted this same sentiment, but I’m guessing it is a lot! How can you not mention Less Than Zero!!?? Furthermore, how can his role in said movie NOT be at the top of your list?? Oh wait, I know, this article was written by some guy who was probably born in the late nineties and who’s only reference for RDJ prior to Tropic Thunder is Iron Man. Come on dude, if you are gonna post this rubbish, at least do some research first!!

  • zengrrl

    I would’ve replaced A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac with Less Than Zero and The Soloist. But it’s a decent list. =)

    • Dusitn Stapleton

      The Soloist was amazing.

  • Kathy

    I loved RDJ in “The Singing Detective”. Playing a character that l ooks repulsive. You can’t take your eyes off him and loving the transformation to his beautiful self in the end. The self in his dreams. Loved the kiss he planted on Robin Wright. Also RDJ knows who to work a hat.

  • Anja Radie

    I did see Less than zero as a teenager and it was shocking and felt so realistic. But i fell in love with RDJ watching Chaplin. And ever since then I followed him and was so happy when he got his life sorted and had an awesome comeback. He is awesome as Stark/Iron Man and as Sherlock Holmes. But to this day i keep telling ppl to give esp chaplin a go. Because i think he was outstanding in it and i love Charlie Chaplin who was more than just a funny man.

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  • SitizenKane

    Chaplin came out when I was 5, and I watched it when I was 10, because I loved Charlie Chaplin and had a deep fascination with him since I was a toddler, with him never talking and his (what I thought as a kid) obscure appearance. It didn’t occur to me until I was a teen how Downey transformed himself thoroughly to Chaplin. It was a truly uncanny performance, just pure brilliant. And this was back when he was on massive amounts of drugs! I truly believe that Chaplin is his greatest performance, followed by kirk lazarus in Tropic Thunder.

  • Mark

    Downey was HILARIOUS in Back to School, with Rodney Dangerfield.

  • AdonisBishop

    His range is great and I understand Less Than Zero over Tropic Thunder but this list is about range and Tropic Thunder did show that as well.He is just a great actor and I’m glad he had turned his life around when he did.

  • Tabinda Touseef

    Other than these ‘The Singing Detective’ is one of my most favorite. And I loved him as a psychopathic killer in ‘In Dreams’ even though it might not be considered as a big role. And even it has been said like a gazillion time I would like to repeat: WHY IS ‘LESS THAN ZERO’ NOT THERE??

  • http://www.thehumblegourmet.wordpress.com/ thehumblegourmet

    A movie that without a doubt shows his fantastic range, though not super well-known, is Fur (the Diane Arbus story). He plays a man with hypertrichosis (werewolf syndrome), and so the only really recognizable part of him is his eyes. Very quiet and absolutely beautiful performance, my personal favorite.

  • Prasanna Rajan

    ‘Richard III’ and ‘A guide to recognize your saints’

  • Milton Moorehead

    His portrayal of David Seaton Barnes, producer of The Sun Also Sets, in the comedic classic Soapdish

  • แครี ดัน

    Air America ! That is the first movie I recall seeing him in, and thought he was great ! Mel Gibson was the “star” of that movie, but it was Downey’s performance that made the movie memorable (for me at least).